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Thelma Terry and Her Playboys

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Biography

Thelma Terry, née Thelma Combes (September 30, 1901 – May 30, 1966) was an American bandleader and bassist during the 1920s and 1930s. She fronted Thelma Terry and Her Playboys and was the first American woman to lead a notable jazz orchestra as an instrumentalist.

Terry was born in Bangor, Michigan in 1901. Her parents divorced when she was very young and she moved with her mother to Chicago, where the latter was employed as a servant for the wealthy Runner family. When the young woman was given the opportunity to receive musical training with the instrument of her choice, she chose to study the string bass. Her early years were spent on the road performing in Chautauqua assemblies.
After graduating from Austin Union High School, she earned first chair in the Chicago Women’s Symphony Orchestra. As this did not provide her with a living, she eventually turned to jazz.

In the early 1920s, Chicago had undergone a fateful transition. On one hand, the nation’s second largest city at that time was noted for gangster violence as “Big Jim” Colosimo, Al Capone, and Bugs Moran fought for control of the city’s illegal liquor trade. On the other hand, Chicago had also become a mecca for many of the finest artists of jazz, who migrated north from New Orleans. Through her contacts at Austin Union, Combes had found her way into Chicago night life. After playing in and around Chicago for some years, sometimes with her “all-girl” band (“Thelma Combes and her Volcanic Orchestra”), sometimes in a stringed quartet, she found her way into the house band of Colosimo’s Restaurant (owned by Capone) in 1925. She played bass and sang at Colosimo’s, sometimes on live radio.

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